A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 365 – Be Kind Rewind

Be Kind Rewind – February 28th, 2011

It’s hard to believe but tomorrow is our one year anniversary, which means that as of today we have watched a full year’s worth of movies. That’s a lot of movies. That’s a lot of good and a lot of bad and a lot of in between. And for me it’s been a lot of movies I’d never seen before and might not otherwise have watched. Tonight’s movie, however, was one that I’d been meaning to watch since it came out. And when thinking about what would make a good movie to mark the end of a year of movie watching this came to mind. After all, it’s not just about movies, but it’s about a lot of movies. It seemed fitting.

As Andy and I have mentioned, we worked at a video store when I was in college. It was a local chain and it was a bit of an idiosyncratic place with hand-written signs and staff members who took breaks to play video games. It was a local institution, with regular customers who came to us because we carried what no one else did. We were the sort of store that would make the effort to respool an entire videocassette onto new reels if it was something out of print and got broken (yes, I did that). So I have a soft spot for a movie that features a tiny little video rental place. It’s my sort of store. And so, when the plot of the movie becomes apparent, and you know that this quirky little video store is in a building scheduled to be torn down in the name of progress, well, I’m a sucker for that too. But of course, that’s just the impetus for what is the point of the movie.

The point of it all is movies. People who love movies. Having fun with movies. Having fun at the movies’ expenses. When a wacky plot device causes Jack Black’s character, Jerry, to become magnetized, he erases all the movies in the store just by being near them. This is absolutely horrific to me. And I say that as someone who might well have applied a strong magnet to a particularly annoying trailer tape when I worked at a certain video store that was not the one mentioned above. Magnets and videocassettes are not friends, kids. And thus we get to the gimmick of the film, which is that Jerry and Mike, played by Mos Def, have to find a way to replace the movies and keep the store open while the owner is away. So they record their own movies. They do fantastic no budget remakes of things like Ghostbusters, using tinsel on fishing rods as the proton streams and things like that. They make Rush Hour 2 with the help of some neighborhood kids and a jungle gym. And people like them. They want more. And they’re willing to pay $20 a pop for them. With the help of Alma (played by Melonie Diaz, whom I have fallen in love with now), who works at a local dry cleaner, they start to make more movies. They sign up new members. They make even shorter movies starring the new members so they can increase production and not lower prices.

There’s a fantastic shot that’s either all one shot or a very well pieces together series of shots where the camera pans around as the group make movie after movie after movie, skipping from set to set to set. It’s hilarious and to really get it all, you have to love movies. You have to know movies. If you do, it’s just flat out amazing. The trouble is that obviously the fun can’t last forever. The boss, played by Danny Glover, comes back and has a plan to switch to DVDs to save the store, then some lawyers show up and say they’ve got a court order to destroy all the tapes and okay, let me pause for a moment here.

Now, while I have no doubt in my mind that studios would be pretty ticked off by a store renting out remakes of their movies, this is not precisely now copyright works. My best guess is that the store’s use of the movies’ plots and characters and so on would end up violating enough to not fall under fair use when it comes to renting such things out (impact on market value is an issue here and I don’t know if the parody part would be enough to cancel it out) but without a court case and arguments about it all could they really seize the tapes and run them over with a steamroller? Really? Seize them, maybe, but they’d be evidence and need to be scrutinized. Copyright law is murky at best and certainly the fair use stuff makes for less than clear cut answers, but man, when Sigourney Weaver’s lawyer character mutters that they’re being made to look like the bad guys, well. There’s a reason for that. They are.

The problem with the movie is that it takes all this fun stuff with the movie parodies and stops it cold as soon as the lawyers show up. There’s all this fun with ketchup being dumped on a fake Carrie’s head and people lining up to get the chance to make their own movie and the neighborhood pulling together in this bizarre way. And then no. The end. No more. And so since that doesn’t really give us any closure, the movie has to keep going, veering off into a completely different direction, towards a documentary about a jazz musician named Fats Waller and the completely falsified history the people in the city of Passaic give him. There are mentions of him in the beginning, and about how he was supposedly born in the building the video store was in. Mike and his boss love him and idolize him and take a lot of pride in their connection to him. But it’s all in the background. In the far background. Because the movie flat out forgets about him for about an hour while Mike and Jerry run around in cheap costumes while Alma directs and films. And then oh hey, we can’t make our parody movies anymore. Let’s make a fake documentary with the whole neighborhood!

The weird thing is, that part is fun too! It’s really amazingly awesome to see this whole neighborhood get together and build sets and props and improvise the hell out of everything. It’s creative and funny and the story is outrageous and everyone seems to have a great time making it. But it’s such a completely different feel from the first section of the movie. And then when everyone gets together to watch the final product the demolition crew shows up to tear down the store and it all feels like it happened very quickly. It’s choppy and weird, but touching at the same time, which I find confusing. Still, overall I really enjoyed the movie. It’s paced oddly but while the parts don’t always fit together well, they’re each great to watch. And while the movie definitely didn’t make me like Jack Black (whom I find horribly irritating much of the time), it made me love Mos Def even more than I already did and it introduced me to Diaz, so I’d say it more than evens out.

February 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 1 Comment

Be Kind Rewind

February 28, 2011

Be Kind Rewind

As of tonight we have watched and reviewed a different movie every day for an entire year. So we figured we’d watch a movie about movies. This was yet another movie I bought sight unseen based only on the preview. I loved both the notion of amateurish movie re-makes and Mos Def and Jack Black and Danny Glover. Even better it is written and directed by the edgy and weird Michel Gondry.

The movie centers on a down-on-its-luck video store in the town of Passaic New Jersey. I loved seeing this little corner video shop – a tiny little independent store that reminded me very much of the little store I used to frequent on Beacon Hill in the eighties. Mike’s Video had a better selection (the store in this film seems to have a lot of empty shelves) but it was the same little one room store with shelves and shelves of video cassettes and a single person behind the counter. Of course this movie is all about a sort of iconic simplification. Gondry has gone out of his way to show that this store, and indeed the entire neighbourhood it exists in, is a little slice of Americana. They don’t even seem to have a computer.

When store owner Mr. Fletcher goes on a one week vacation to celebrate the birthday of his idol Fats Waller he leaves the store in the hands of his enthusiastic but not always too bright employee Mike. He also leaves specific instructions that Mike not let local crazyperson Jerry into the store. Jerry does come into the store, though, and due to some implausible hijinks at a power substation near Jerry’s scrapyard every one of the video tapes in the store gets erased. So the two affable screw-ups have no choice but to re-film the movies themselves. They tell their customers that they have to charge extra for these movies and it will take them a day or so to get each one in because they are special Swedish versions of the films. Within no time at all these “Sweeded” versions of popular movies are an enormous hit with all the locals – not the least because in an attempt to make the movies faster the duo hit upon the idea of allowing the townsfolk to appear in the films.

From there the movie takes some odd turns. There is a lot of charm to the amateur productions of movies done in an afternoon by just a couple guys. Indeed if you enjoy that sort of thing you will probably have a lot of fun like I did checking out all the films linked from the internet Sweeded movie database which is where i spent about an hour after this movie was over. It could easily have been just a movie about the “Sweeded” films. But it’s not really that. This is a movie about community and about people in a run-down town coming together and getting excited about an unlikely project.

Really, that’s the most magical thing about this movie. It has a very amateurish feel to it. It’s strange and comical and offbeat and doesn’t feel like a polished Hollywood film. Apparently this is because it wasn’t a Hollywood film. If you look at the special features on the film you discover that in a meta bit of weirdness this movie about a neighbourhood in Passaic coming together to make a movie was actually something that brought a neighbourhood in Passaic together. Almost all of the extras are local residents. The owner of the junkyard they used for Jerry’s home appears in the movie as a disgruntled customer. The children and teens in the movie are local children and teens. It turns something that could have been just a quirky comedy into something more soulful and more touching. And it shows in the final product.

This movie was not altogether what I was expecting from the previews, but it was heartwarming and entertaining nonetheless. Jack Black plays his usual loudmouthed jackass, but he fits well into the fabric of the movie because that is just the right character for Jerry. Mos Def is charming as his bumbling friend Mike who gets swept up in all Jerry’s schemes but generally knows what’s right and what’s wrong. Danny Glover is fantastic as the somewhat defeated owner of Be Kind Rewind Videos who desperately needs a miracle in his life. I was also pleasantly surprised by the female leads. I had no idea Mia Farrow was in the movie and she’s fantastic as the slightly spacey Miss Falewicz, who appears to be the most loyal customer of the struggling video store. There’s also Melonie Diaz as Alma, a girl who works at a nearby laundromat who ends up being the female lead for Mike and Jerry’s movies. It’s a great role because she gets to be the voice of reason who has to find ways to make this crazy scheme actually work. Almost every other role is played by members of the crew or local townsfolk. Which makes the movie all the more charming and fun.

For the most part Michel Gondry doesn’t utilize his usual vast bag of tricks. It’s a much simpler movie than that. The one exception I can think of is a fantastic montage that depicts the making of a collection of the “Sweeded” films which appears to be a single long take showing the zero budget effects used to make these re-makes. So much of the fun in this movie, and in all the fan submitted “Sweeded” films on the web site, is in the creativity used to bring these special effects from Hollywood to Passaic.

This was a perfect movie to close out the first year of our project. It’s got a love of films and a playfulness to it that is infectious. I know that if I had seen this in High School my friends Jeff, Josh and I would have been out “Sweeding” movies the very next day. Right now I’m trying to think up ways to do Inception on no budget whatsoever. Hmmm.

February 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 2 Comments

Movie 364 – War of the Worlds (2005)

War of the Worlds (2005) – February 27th, 2011

Going into this movie I knew it was going to be bad. I hadn’t heard anything good about it, after all. I’d heard it was an explosion-fest with a lot of screaming and a ridiculous ending. But I figured it would be sort of like a Michael Bay movie. It wouldn’t wow me, but I’d come out of it unscathed. And I was wrong. I was so very wrong. I think this movie actively hated me, or rather, hated its audience. Pretty sure of it. I can’t think of why it is the way it is otherwise, because technically speaking it’s well made. It just also sucks.

Right from the outset it’s clear that the main character, Ray, is a jackass. I’m not sure if the movie wants you to hate unions or what, but do you really think that telling his boss he can’t do a double shift because of union rules was in there to make him likable? Because personally I think telling his boss he had to meet his kids would have been not only a better plan but accurate as well. He’s late to meet his ex dropping the kids off for the weekend, he’s still got his teenage son sleeping in a tiny race car bed. He has no food in the house, his ex is understandably reticent about leaving the kids there and the kids don’t seem thrilled about it either. And in movies when you see this sort of set-up it’s usually either to show you just how bad the dad is and you’re not supposed to like him, or you already know he’s not that horrible and you’re supposed to feel bad that he’s getting such treatment. And here? No. Ray really is a jerk. He really doesn’t seem to be invested in either of his kids. But then, with these kids? I guess I get it.

And see, here is more of the problem with the movie. The three people we’re supposed to care about and follow from the beginning of the film to the end are Ray and his two kids, Robbie and Rachel. And I don’t like any of them! It’s not just Ray. It’s sullen and seemingly hard of hearing Robbie, who ignores everything his father says at all times unless they’re screaming at each other in aimless arguments that go nowhere over and over. It’s shrill and critical Rachel who is sort of a shouty and less obviously intelligent Lisa Simpson and who shrieks for the vast majority of the movie unless her brother is leading her through “this is your space” breathing exercises or she’s criticizing something. And when the aliens touch down and there’s lightning and explosions and their father comes home covered in ash and clearly panicked when he’s been ridiculously laid back thus far? The kids won’t believe him that something bad is happening and they need to leave until they all have a nice sit-down and chat. What is wrong with these people? If the aim of the movie is to have me want to see these folks through it to the end when the aliens inevitably bite it then it fails. It fails spectacularly.

Andy has told me that when he watches this movie he roots for the aliens, and you know what? I can see why. They’re not fleshed out characters, but then barely anyone else is either and the ones who are aren’t really anyone I care about. And that frustrates me, because while I’m not a big Tom Cruise fan and I don’t really know Justin Chatwin from anything else he’s done, I like Dakota Fanning and I just wanted her to shut up in this movie. I wanted everyone to shut up. They run from the aliens and the family argues. They run some more and argue some more. Ray and Robbie yell at each other over Robbie wanting to join the army somehow or follow them like a groupie and Rachel screams and then they all love each other only to scream and yell more later. It’s miserable. And while I could excuse some of that as being the tensions of having to run for their lives from these gigantic and terrifying alien tripods of death, no. This is how they started out and this is how they’re going to continue. It’s a sad portrayal of the average American family in the middle of a disaster.

At about fifty minutes into the movie I became actively angry at owning it. The plot holes are horrendous, but I’ll come back to them and I’ve already lambasted the main characters and I will continue to do so in a moment when I get to Tim Robbins. At fifty minutes in, however, Ray and his kids encounter a town where no one has a working car and a mob sets on them, rocking the car, smashing the windows, dragging Robbie and Ray out, etc. And when Ray pulls a gun on the mob that is inches away from beating him and his son senseless while his daughter watches? People tell him to calm down. That is the sort of movie this is. That is why I think it has contempt for everyone watching it. And that is why I am offended on behalf of our collection that we have a hole the size and shape of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in it and we’ve apparently tried to plug it with this turd.

All of the above make the movie unpleasant, but then on top of it all are the plot holes and Tim Robbins. Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Tim Robbins. In fact I like Tim Robbins a lot. But oh do I feel bad for him in this. Because, you see, in the middle of all the running and shouting and death from above, after Robbie inexplicably heads off towards the danger, Ray and Rachel end up in the basement of a bizarre dude who’s stockpiled water and food already. You know. Just in case. That is not a good sign! That does not tell you that this is a dude you can trust! That tells you this is a dude who’s been waiting for a calamity. And so we spend a horrible fifteen or twenty minutes in Tim Robbins’ basement hiding from the aliens, who are fooled by mirrors, while Tim’s character and Ray silently fight over a shotgun and Rachel rocks in a rocking chair and I am not kidding. And it’s telling that this whole section was so bad that it just momentarily distracted me from the plot holes.

There are so many plot holes. The movie is more plot hole than plot, really. We’re talking little things like a dude having a working camcorder during the emergence of the first tripod even though an EMP just supposedly wiped out all other electronics in the area. We’re talking medium things like no one else having the bright idea to replace the solenoids in a car, or having cars out of the range of the EMPs. And we’re talking big things like the alien tripods apparently being under our cities for centuries upon centuries with no one noticing even though here where we live it’s the law to call Dig Safe to make sure you won’t hit a gas line or something in your own front yard. Like hell no one noticed these things just sitting dormant under the streets of New Jersey and Osaka and everywhere else. And then there’s the end! Where our horrifying villains who are so evil they drain our blood to spray it around as fertilizer for their never-explained red viney alien kudzu end up catching a cold! And having recently had a nasty head cold I can say yeah, that crap’s unpleasant. But come on. That’s the best this movie can do?

It’s not even done in a satisfying way. It’s not even got a moment like Starship Troopers where Neil Patrick Harris tells everyone it’s all cool and we’re going to win. Nope. We just get to Boston, which is bizarrely unscathed, and everyone’s fine and dandy and thank goodness all the yelling is over. I think I let out an audible sigh of relief when this movie ended. It’s made all the worse that I can see how this story is terrifying and gripping and could have been done so well and I can see where it fails. It fails over and over and over. I don’t care about the characters. The pacing is bizarre. The holes just keep coming. The ending is anticlimactic. It’s that while there’s plenty of terror, there’s no heart here. There’s nothing to give the terror an anchor and nothing to give me as an audience member a reason to care what happens when the terror lifts. I’m glad this movie is behind me now. I am never ever watching it again.

February 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

War of the Worlds (2005)

February 27, 2011

War of the Worlds (2005)

I can’t remember why I bought this movie. I mean, it’s not a good movie. I never thought it was going to be a good movie. But I’m a sucker for a big budget sci-fi movie directed by Stephen Spielberg. What amazed me, when I put this in my DVD player to watch it one afternoon, is how much I actually ended up enjoying the movie. It’s got plot holes big enough for an alien tripod to walk through and it is so blatantly and stupidly manipulative that I know I should feel insulted just watching it, but in spite of that it is unbelievably fun to watch. At least I found it to be so.

Tom Cruise plays a jerk. This is something that would have shocked me in the days before Magnolia, but now I realise that it’s something he’s actually good at. His character’s name is Ray Ferrier and Spielberg goes to great pains to show us that he’s a regular working slob. As the movie starts his disapproving wife is dropping off his children with him for a weekend. His son clearly hates him for his negligence and his daughter knows he’s doing his best but she also knows he’s a complete fuck up. He’s a guy whose life has gone completely to shit and he knows it. If it were just a movie about him and his shitty life it would quickly become unbearable to watch – but luckily some aliens soon show up and start blowing stuff up.

I don’t think I’m supposed to, but I root for the aliens in this movie. It’s easy to do – they’re unstoppable killing machines that destroy everything in their path. Truth be told there is pretty much nothing redeemable about the people in this movie. Sure the two kids Robbie and Rachel are innocents just caught up in an apocalypse, and I suppose Ray is an okay guy at heart who just wants his kids to respect him, but in general the people in this movie, once the panic sets in, are unappealing desperate monsters. And oh, the screaming. So much screaming.

As we follow this trio of survivors through their series of narrow escapes and watch the chaos unleashed by the alien invasion I begin to feel that the world would be a better place if all of humanity were wiped out. The aliens are a natural disaster before which nothing can stand. Well, nothing except for the aliens’ collective stupidity and lack of research regarding Terran viruses.

Let’s pause for a bit here and talk plot holes. There are vast portions of this movie that make no sense. Such as the notion that the tripods have been buried under the earth since before we built our cities there, waiting for the right time to beam the pilots down and start exterminating us. In the scene where the first tripod bursts up and starts killing people a couple of police men argue about what could be under the ground there causing all this disturbance. Could it be a subway? A broken water main? Which brings up the question – how did these buried alien vehicles (which appear to be just a few meters under the ground) never get discovered by workers digging subway tunnels or laying out water pipes? Then, later in the movie when a crazed mob tries to take Ray’s car from him and he pulls out a gun Amanda was flabbergasted that apparently almost nobody else in this huge mob had a gun. Blame the Democrats I suppose.

I wish I could explain why I enjoy this movie. It’s a guilty pleasure. If you read Amanda’s review you’ll see that very clearly that in this case our opinions diverge. I can’t deny that this is a stupid movie about horrific things happening to irritating people. Maybe it’s just Spielberg’s adept manipulation at work, but I get into this movie. There’s a kind of thrill I get when I hear that airhorn/didgerydoo that signals impending destruction. I love those deadly, unstoppable, three-limbed, rock stupid aliens.

February 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 363 – The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – February 26th, 2011

I admit it. I had been kind of dreading this one. Not because I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it, but because it is a two and a half hour silent movie. That’s a bit of a challenge, especially when one is in the habit of working on one’s review or idly checking email while watching a movie every night. Two and a half hours. Silent. And I’ve had a cold and been kind of wiped out most evenings. And I admit too that around the middle, during the romancey bits, I got a little drowsy. But I blame the cold, not the movie. Because the movie was lovely. It was absolutely wonderful and lovely and impressed me in ways that I don’t think any modern movie can.

Now, if you’ve read my reviews of some other fantasy epics, like the Lord of the Rings movies (okay, good fantasy epics, not crap fantasy epics) you know I appreciate modern special effects. Okay, even when they’re in otherwise cruddy movies, I appreciate well done special effects. But here’s the thing, that appreciation for special effects is rooted in a theater techie background. I like to see cleverness. I like to see things made magical before my eyes even knowing that it’s a trick. And this movie is full of that. There’s a flying carpet, an underwater scene, armies appearing out of nowhere, magical rope, all sorts of great effects that I know can’t have been easy but still look amazing even a little under ninety years later. That’s fantastic. It makes this movie a joy to watch for someone like myself, who enjoys seeing where some of the things we take for granted now got started.

Effects aside, the story of the movie itself is fun. To be honest, while I felt that some of it ran a little long, it was a tighter story than last night’s, which was a great deal shorter. The difference is in the number of characters you’re supposed to give a damn about. In last night’s version of the story the thief and the prince were two different people, which led to a kind of split in how the movie seemed to want attention paid to it. But tonight we get a swashbuckling thief masquerading as a prince. Best of both worlds! And I’m all for a rogue, especially a rogue who’s so very charming. The thief here, whose name is never really stated (he goes by Prince Ahmed when he’s tricked his way into the palace to court the princess but it’s unclear if that’s his real name since the title cards are fairly scanty – but I’ll get to that), starts out with plenty of mischief. He steals and laughs and runs away in the middle of midday prayers. His introduction is a little long, but it clearly establishes him as a devil-may-care ne’er-do-well. He is the Han Solo of Bagdad but without a blaster.

So once we know the thief we have to meet the princess. Since there isn’t a pesky prince to get in the way you know they’ll end up in love and having to deal with some sort of villain who wants to keep them apart. The villain here is the Prince of the Mongols, a sinister baddie who creeps our heroine right out. Of course he wants to marry the princess and be the heir to Bagdad’s throne and if he can’t get her to marry him willingly then he’ll take the city by force. Our hero sneaks in pretending to be a prince, meets the princess intending to kidnap her and then oh! A change of heart! But then he’s discovered! But then he escapes! And off they go to the next act where the three princess who are courting the princess and our hero all head off on great adventures to find rare treasures to present the princess with. You will have assumed, I hope, that the thief saves the day, but the way he does it is pretty spectacular, with a box of magic dust that lets him create things, like armies, out of thin air. It goes by quickly in comparison to the rest of the movie, but I think I know why.

A lot of what goes on early in the movie is very dependant on the visuals in order to convey the plot and characters. We spend a goodly amount of time just getting to know the thief. But there are some complicated politics going on in the palace and the movie doesn’t really have that many title cards, considering its length. It is the epitome of showing, not telling. But I think the director, screenwriter, etc. all felt that they really had to spend a lot of time on the subtler things. The emotions, the politics. When you see the slave girl with the princess you might not know she’s a spy working for the Prince of the Mongols, but she is. So we’ve got to show that, in detail. You could put up a title card saying how the thief feels about the princess and his change of heart, and I believe they did, but it wouldn’t mean as much without a very carefully put together visual to back it up. It’s just that each one of those careful plot points and characterizations adds to an already very full movie. But then at the end, when we’ve already established the power of the thief’s magic dust, why, it takes no time at all to convey the creation of an army and why that means he wins. Sad, but true, that the presence of an army is assumed to be easier to understand the implications of than a romantic interlude.

Even with the length, however, I think the story holds up very nicely. Really, the whole movie does. I can see the elements of it that were kept and altered for the 1940 version and I can see some tropes and themes that are still in use to this day. And then too, I think it’s an impressive movie for more reasons than the story and the effects. The cast, for one, features Asian actors and people of color. Pretty cool for 1924. Not that it’s flawless in its treatment of various cultures, but it’s nice to see a positive portrayal of Islam on film, you know? And then there are the sets, which are vast and elaborate and gorgeous. And one of my favorite bits: The tinting. Apparently the original print of the movie featured tinting for each scene. Nighttime scenes are blue where daytime is sepia. The scenes in Mongolia are purple and the quests for the magical items show us green, turquoise and red. We’d wondered if it was a thing brought in for the DVD we had, but some digging revealed that no, it seems this is how the movie was presented. It’s a lovely little detail that I think adds a lot to what would otherwise be a black and white film. It adds tone and flavor to the scene without taking away from the scenery.

Overall I was super impressed with this movie. It was long, it was silent but for the musical score added in (using the original cue sheets), but it was fun and for a film lover, it’s a treat for many reasons. It’s certainly not something to put in for a casual afternoon, but if you’ve got the time to pay attention it’s well worth it.

February 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

February 26, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

When my family got our first VCR – probably around Christmas 1983 or 1984 – we had very few movies for it. We had a couple dubbed movies provided by my uncles (chief among them being a copy of The Raiders of the Lost Arc which I watched incessantly) but practically no commercial videocasettes. We did have two classic silent movies though. I don’t know if they came from my dad or from his brothers, but I’m extremely grateful that they were there on Christmas day and I watched them both over and over again. One was Buster Keaton’s fantastic action adventure The General. The other was this outstanding and impressive opus.

I don’t have to tell you that a silent film, especially one that is over two hours long, could be a challenge for an eleven or twelve year old boy in the eighties to watch. The style, visual vocabulary, look and feel of these movies is vastly different from the cinema of today. But I’ve always been a sucker for a great fantasy, and this is a fairy story on a vast scale that even today, almost ninety years after it was made, cannot fail to impress.

What I remembered most about this movie before watching it tonight were the jaw dropping sets and production design. The sheer scale of the streets of Bagdad, the Caliph’s palace, and all the other locations featured here is astonishing. There’s one particular set, the enormous gates of the city, that simply boggles my mind. It’s not just the size of it, which dwarfs the actors, extras, donkeys, horses, camels and elephant that pass through it. It also has such a cool look, with four sliding panels that interlock when closed, that captures my imagination. If it were done today it would be in miniature or digitally, but back in 1924 somebody actually designed and manufactured that enormous gate.

Of course I also remembered Douglas Fairbanks and his exaggerated, almost bizarre acting. That is bizarre when looked at from the perspective of a child in the eighties with no prior exposure to early films. When this movie was made films were very much in their infancy, and the feel of them is not at all what we expect in a movie today. It’s not just the lack of audible dialog and the use of title cards – the entire art form was different. As Amanda and I watched this version tonight, which features an orchestral score, we kept commenting on hoe much ti felt like ballet. It’s the broad acting in pantomime that does it. Combined to an extent with the bold stage make-up. Because the complex visual vocabulary of modern film was still in its infancy here these movies have a much more deliberate, simple, feel to them. Maybe it’s the almost exclusive use of stationary cameras. It ends up giving the impression at times of sitting in an audience watching a stage performance. A very intimate performance where you get to stand right on the stage with the actors and the sets are impossibly huge and, in the case of this movie, with a plethora of clever special effects.

The story is presented in three distinct acts. The first act, by far my favorite, introduces us to the thief as he lives his carefree life on the streets of Bagdad. After pilfering a magic rope he uses it to scale the walls of the palace and falls in love with the princess. On her birthday, when suitors from all across the world gather to vie for her hand in marriage he disguises himself as a prince and infiltrates the palace in the hope of abducting her for himself. At this point he is a cad, a rogue, and completely self centered. He takes what he wants and damn the rest of the world. When he finally comes face to face with the princess however he is shocked to discover that just taking everything he wants doesn’t offer him true happiness. He realizes that he wants to earn the right to be worthy of the love of the princess rather than simply abducting her. At the close of the first act he admits his humble origins to her and allows himself to be captured and exiled.

The second act is a very linear quest. The princess, denied the chance to wed the thief, sends her remaining suitors out to find rare gifts for her father to decide which of them she will wed. Ahmed, the thief, goes to a local imam who sets him on the road to collect the most rare an wonderful gift, but first he must overcome a number of obstacles in his way. This should be the most magical part of the movie, because his adventures take him through a series of legendary and perilous realms. He must contend with a valley of flames, a fire breathing dragon, a tree beast in a sinister glen and a giant bat… any number of fairy tale encounters. It doesn’t quite work for me though. Each encounter is too brief to satisfy and it becomes almost monotonous to watch. The exception is when he goes to sea and dives deep under the ocean to retrieve a magic key. This is one my favorite parts of the movie, with a very cool other-worldly feel to it. It’s also the only episode where it feels like there is some peril and that things tie in to the plot of the rest of the movie as he becomes tempted by some sirens and resists them when he is reminded of the princess.

Ultimately Ahmed gets his magic gift – a box full of sand that makes his every wish come true – and starts back towards the princess. In the mean time one of the suitors, an evil Mongol prince, has not only poisoned the princess (so that he can use his gift – a magic golden apple – to bring her back from death’s door) but when that gambit failed he simply invaded and took over all of Bagdad.

The closing act, which feels extremely rushed in my opinion, involves the thief using the magic dust to re-take the city and save the princess. It doesn’t have any tension or emotional power to it, but it DOES involve some simply stupendous crowd scenes and a cast of thousands as he raises his army from the sand to overthrow the Mongol hordes.

Ultimately I have to admit that the fantasy of this version of the story doesn’t capture me like the 1940 version we watched yesterday. The first half of the film is exuberant and thrilling and filled with amazing sights, but the second half doesn’t gel for me and leaves me wanting more. None of that takes away from the spectacle of the movie though. It’s a film filled with astonishing special effects (for the time that it was made) and with sets and production design that is jaw dropping even by today’s standards. I love Douglas Fairbanks’ performance, and I enjoy visiting the fantasy world he has brought to life here.

After watching this movie this evening I went on Amazon and ordered the “complete” Metropolis. So there’s another classic silent film to look forward to. (I wonder if I will miss the Queen soundtrack from the version available for rent when I was growing up.)

February 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 362 – The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Thief of Bagdad (1940) – February 25th, 2011

We own two versions of this story and we did a bit of debate over them tonight. We do indeed have a rule that states that series must be watched in the correct order, but we don’t have anything about remakes or different versions of a story. There’s nothing in the rules saying that we had to watch all our versions of Hamlet in chronological order. We watched the original Hairspray after the remake, after all, but then we didn’t own the original when we watched the remake, so we couldn’t have. Still, it feels a little odd, watching the 1940 version of this when we have a silent version from 1924 as well. But the silent version is super long and we just weren’t up to it tonight and well, it’s not against the rules. So here we are.

There’s a lot of movie in this movie. It’s a grand old film full of elaborate sets and fun special effects that are far and away better than anything Sharks in Venice had despite being from about fifty years earlier. And it’s not a budget thing. It’s an attention to detail thing. It’s a pride in the end product thing. Because it’s a fantasy epic and it feels large and well made from start to finish.

There’s also a lot of story in this movie. The title would suggest that the story is about the thief, Abu, but the begin the movie hearing the story of Ahmad, an exiled king whose grand vizier (seriously, it’s always the grand vizier and they need to abolish the position) tricked him and tried to have him killed before blinding him and leaving him a beggar. A good half to two thirds of the movie follows Ahmad and his romance with the princess of Basra. Ahmad is imprisoned by his grand vizier, then Abu helps him escape. They go to Basra, where Ahmad sneaks into the garden where the princess is and meets her (and of course they totally fall in love), and then he’s caught by the vizier again. The vizier blinds him and turns Abu into a dog and we hear all about this from Ahmad himself, telling the story to a group of women in his old palace where he’s been brought to wake the princess from a deep sleep that only her true love will break.

Sounds like it’s all about Ahmad, right? Except no. It really is largely about how Abu saves Ahmad’s ass again and again. While there’s a romance going on and the story of an exiled king and an evil usurper, the real story here is about the plucky thief who manages to get into the middle of it all and bring it to its rightful (and prophesied) end. It’s kind of fascinating to see the movie try to do both stories, and it largely succeeds. Sure, there are bits where it feels a little uneven, but I’d have to say that Sabu’s performance as Abu is what makes the movie about Abu. He steals every scene, which is as it should be. He is playing a thief, after all. And that’s not to say that John Justin is bad as Ahmad, it’s just that Sabu really plays his part up. I liked Justin and thought he did a nice job with the romance and I thought the same of June Duprez as the princess. But they’re just not as interesting to me as characters as Abu is. But then, I do like clever thieves.

Truth be told, I could have done with even more Abu, but I did get quite a lot for him anyhow. He meets a djinn and goes to steal a magic eye from a hidden temple and there’s some great stuff there. The djinn is a nicely sinister character who enjoys tricking Abu, but Abu ends up with the upper hand. I did feel that the magical kingdom that showed up out of nowhere was a bit of a cop out, but eh, it was fun, and they gave Abu a pretty pink quiver of arrows and a bow and a magic carpet, so how can I argue?

It’s a fun movie, and really, it stands up fairly well considering its age. The plot could have been a little tighter, with the various plot points joined together more smoothly, but that’s really my only complaint. It was well acted, with lovely sets and some fantastic makeup and effects. There’s whimsy to it, and not the cloying kind. It’s fanciful and enjoyable and I had fun watching it. I’m very curious now about the silent version, but we’ll be seeing that one soon enough.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

February 25, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

My dad took me to see this in the theater. I think it must have been at the Coolidge Corner theater. This would have been some time in the early eighties, so this movie was already more then forty years old at this point, but it didn’t strike me as dated. It’s an epic tale of love, betrayal, and magic. Even today it retains its wonder for me.

Partially it’s the story telling. We come into the story in the middle, which I always love, and the blind beggar Ahmed tells us the tale of why his dog is so clever, why he’s blind, and why a sinister German in a turban wants him brought to a sleeping princess. Partially it’s the lush beautiful look of the movie. This was an early technicolor film and like Wizard of Oz one year earlier it has a vibrant, exciting palette. The vast lush sets for the Sultan’s palace, for example, are done in a lacquered red that fairly pops out of the screen. Partially it’s the rich, magical world – filled with genies, curses, wonder and true love.

Ahmed, you see, used to be the naive king of Bagdad, so pampered and isolated in his palace that he was unaware that his people hated him and longed for his death. He takes the advice of his Grand Vizier Jaffar (never a good idea) and goes out into the city dressed as a common man only to be arrested and thrown into prison for sedition. There he befriends a witty young thief named Abu who helps him escape from Jaffar’s clutches. The two of them set out to find adventure in the wide world and very soon Ahmed falls head over heels in love with a beautiful princess, only daughter of a dotty old Sultan with a love for mechanical wind up toys. Of course at this point he’s only a penniless beggar and thief himself, but that doesn’t stop her from falling in love with him as well. Of course Jaffar, now the self styled king of Bagdad, shows up to ask the Sultan for the princesses hand in marriage, so she flees. Ahmed and Abu are captured by the Sultan’s guards and Jaffar lays a curse upon them. Ahmed will be blind, and Abu is transformed into a dog, until the day that Jaffar should have the princess in his arms.

All of that is just the back story.

In many ways this is a very straight forward love story with Ahmed and the princess (who would appear to have no name oddly enough according to the credits) mooning over each other and a lot of flowery language about their undying love, but it’s also a swashbuckling adventure story. There are songs, prophesies, and a lot of simple but effective special effects.

It also has a fun cast. Conrad Veidt is a fantastic nefarious bad guy. Sure, his strong German accent might seem a little odd in a fairy story about the middle east, but it also lends him a very sinister vibe. In many ways he reminded me of nothing so much as Bella Legosi when he was at his peak with his evil glare and inexplicable mannerisms. The romantic leads John Justin and June Duprez are inoffensive and pretty, which is I think what they are intended to be. Their love is more of a motivator for the adventure than anything believable, but it’s still fun to watch. The best part of the movie, though, is Sabu as the irascible Abu. His acting is perhaps a little overblown (look at his “surprised face”) but he imbues the movie with so much energy and charm that I don’t care at all. He gets all the best parts of the movie – rescuing the king, outsmarting the genie, stealing the all-seeing-eye, and ultimately saving the day through a deus-ex-machina encounter with an ancient race of wise men who treasure curiosity and heroism above all else.

I love the fantasy world on display here. I love the fairy tale tropes such as the very puss n’ boots way in which Abu tricks a mighty and enormous genie into granting him three wishes. I love the really quite well done giant spider. I even love the sappy romance at the heart of the movie and the friendship between the thief from the streets and the deposed king. I have always craved rich, beautiful fantasy worlds, and this completely blew me away in the theater more than twenty years ago. Then, as now, it captured my imagination and filled me with joy.

Tomorrow: Douglas Fairbanks.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 361 – Dragon Wars

Dragon Wars – February 24th, 2011

There are some movies, like Sharks in Venice for example, that seem to require a vocabulary all their own. They’re not good movies by any means, but they’re bad in a very particular way. In a way that makes me sit back and go “This is beautiful. This is amazing. I am so glad we own this.” We have a bunch of them. The aforementioned shark movie, Megaforce, and now this. I take full responsibility for us owning this movie and I am so glad I picked it up. I wasn’t expecting a good movie and oh, I didn’t get one. I got exactly what I wanted and so much more.

The FYE closest to us is, sadly, closing. It was always a nice place to drop by and browse, pick out a movie or two. We bought most of our Star Trek: TNG there. Now that it’s closing they’re selling off everything they’ve got. So the other day we went in and I poked through the 80% off bins and found multiple copies of this movie, in special tins, no less. I knew Andy wouldn’t protest. I knew he’d wonder what made me pick it up, but he wouldn’t protest. And he didn’t. I picked it up because I knew it would be pure fantasy cheese. It would be overblown and poorly scripted and utterly ridiculous and I had a good feeling about it. A feeling that said it would somehow have the right combination to be thoroughly enjoyable while also being incredibly bad.

About when the movie flashed back to an ancient Korean folktale that involves an army with mounted velociraptors and huge dinosaurs with rocket launchers on their backs, I knew I was right. Like I said, some movies just need a new vocabulary. Because while I would never describe this as a good movie, it is so very awesome. It is fantastically bad. And it has a bizarre level of self-awareness that doesn’t ever quite dip into parody, but certainly gets close, like when a passer-by sees the baddie walk through a chainlink fence and tries to copy him, succeeding only in bonking her head. Or when the main character’s best friend rolls his eyes and pokes fun at him expecting to narrow down the search for “a woman named Sara, 19 years old, with a tattoo, in LA” to a single person. I don’t have the right words for this movie. They’re all contradictions.

I’m not even sure it’s worth trying to give a rundown of what happens in this movie in any coherent manner. The basic plot supposedly deals with an ancient Korean myth about a young woman born with the power needed for one of two giant serpents to become a dragon and ascend into heaven. And in the myth the young woman dies before she can give her power to a serpent and so five hundred years later in LA she’s reborn as a blonde chick named Sarah and her champion is reborn as a floppy haired reporter named Ethan. A few days before Sarah turns 20 the evil giant serpent and its army show up and smash up the city and I mentioned the dinosaurs with the rocket launchers, right? There’s a lot of talk about destiny, and the FBI is involved somehow and no one believes there’s a giant elephant-eating snake loose in the city even though you’d think they’d notice that sort of thing. Ethan finds Sarah by what could be pure luck or could be the bizarre machinations of the guy who told Ethan the story about the serpents. It doesn’t really matter. It’s not like the movie cares much.

The movie doesn’t seem to care about a lot. Things get handwaved all over the place, there are some massive plot holes (big enough for the snake to slither through) and characterization? What characterization? Who cares about giving character background or any sort of connection to these people when we can have more scenes of a giant serpent attacking people and drinking out of swimming pools? Who cares about cohesive plot when there are fireball breathing pterodactyls attacking military helicopeters over LA? I mean, really? There are two Wilhelms in this movie. Two! Normally, while I could accept mythological dragons and the like, I’d have to draw the line at dewbacks with rocket launchers in ancient Korea, but not here. This here is a special place where such things exist in harmony. And to cap it all off, there’s an absolutely lovely dragon at the end. Okay, so most of the movie is more Snake Wars than Dragon Wars, but there is a dragon, and it’s very pretty and not a dinosaur at all. I’m proud to say I picked this up. I just wish I had the right terminology to describe it.

February 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Dragon Wars: D-War

February 24, 2011

Dragon Wars: D-War

I admit that I never had any intention of buying this movie. I love a good cheesy movie, but I had been led to believe that this was a movie with no redeeming value. I distinctly remember at the time of this movie’s theatrical release that the producers refused to allow the reviewers in the press to see it before it came out. (Because they knew that the reviewers would in all likeliness not be kind.) The user review that appeared in IMDB today when I went to look the movie up said simply “Dragon Wars sucks.” But Amanda saw this at FYE during an “everything must go” closing sale and convinced me that our collection needed more cheese, so we bought it, and here it is.

What amazes me is that in point of fact this movie is hardly crap at all. Oh, it’s very poorly plotted and clumsily written, and has several unintentionally hilarious moments, but the effects are exceptionally good for a cheesy monster movie. (Compare them, for example, with Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus or Megalodon – these are a thousand times better.) The action is fun, if non-sensical. There’s even a sort of cool factor to watching helicopters and tanks doing battle with dinosaurs with rocket launchers strapped to their backs. Just because the movie sometimes has the feeling of having been written by a twelve year old boy does not necessarily make it unwatchable.

Our hero here is Ethan Kendrick, a reporter for a fictitious news network who dresses like he’s in the seventies. After seeing a giant reptilian scale at what is supposedly a natural gas explosion he has a flashback to when he was a young boy and he met a crazy antique dealer. In the flashback the antique dealer, Jack, tells young Ethan the backstory for the movie, which involves two mighty serpents in ancient Korea and the woman with the dragon tattoo (not that one) who has inside her the mystical energy they need to ascend to the heavens. Five hundred years ago in Korea the evil serpent had at his command a vast army of invulnerable warriors, flying dragons, velociraptor mounts and lumbering dinosaurs with rocket launchers. This giant army laid waste to the simple medeival village where the young woman Narin and her defender Haram live. Narin is supposed to have sacrificed herself so that the good serpent could ascend, but instead she and Haram flee, and ultimately the two of them die together rather than let the evil serpent get her power. Now, five hundred years later, the two of them have been resurrected as Ethan and Sarah Daniels. Sarah is about to turn twenty years old, which means that all the forces of darkness are out to find her, and the only hope for the world is that Ethan find her first.

The plot for the most part makes no sense. For example – there’s a scene about midway through that was clearly a pick-up done in post production where Sarah asks Ethan after one of their many close escapes from the giant evil serpent what happened to his friend Bruce, who had been driving the getaway car, because he’s simply not in the next few scenes. The two of them are in a hospital, then they’re on a beach, then they’re in a coffee shop, then they climb up the stairs of a skyscraper to catch a helicopter, then they go back down the stairs when the snake crashes the helicopter, then they try to drive to Mexico, and then for no particular reason they’re in an alternate dimension that looks suspiciously like the exterior for Orthanc. Sense is not to be had here. But there’s plenty of humor, epic battles and an angry giant snake smashing up all of Los Angeles. Amanda and I laughed out loud several times. Sometimes the jokes were even intentional.

It’s kind of apropriate that we watched this right after The Island because writer/Director Hyung-rae Shim would seem to have ambitions towards becoming the Korean Michael Bay. There are a lot of explosions. There are many, many expensive special effects. There are not one, but two Wilhelm screams. In short: this entire mess of a movie is one long collection of digital effects and battle scenes weakly held together by a flimsy plot. And yes, by the end, there’s even a dragon – which is extremely cool when it finally does show up.

I applaud Hyung-ray Shim. This movie is a crowning achievement in the world of mega cheese. The ultimate triumph of style over substance. Although I never would have willingly bought this movie without Amanda’s encouragement I’m happy to say that I’d watch it again with pleasure, and I’m actually glad we own it.

February 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment